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Film: A girl who won't wear labels

Pride and Prejudice made Jennifer Ehle a household name. So why is she out of work? Because she's choosy. By Demetrios Matheou
It's shocking. Jennifer Ehle, the nation's favourite Elizabeth Bennett, enters in blue jeans, a long leather jacket and a dyed-blond bob: casually modern, with a natural sexiness that Jane Austen's heroine would never get away with. Soon she's talking about bisexuality, infidelity and all kinds of saucy stuff. Die-hard fans of Pride and Prejudice, of which there were millions when it was first screened in 1995, will be up in arms.

Well, of course, they won't. But this is just the kind of stock introduction, steeped in stereotype, that might make even the amused, amusing and distinctly ego-free Ehle a little peeved. As she repeats in an ironic mantra throughout lunch, "labels, labels": the actor's worst nightmare.

As a youngster, travelling through America with her actress mother, Rosemary Harris, and writer dad, Ehle changed schools 18 times. "In every new class there would be these stock label-carriers," she recalls. "The clown, the brain, the very popular girl, the very popular boy, and the recluse. Each time, I would be cast in a different role, or not at all - I was never anywhere long enough to feel I'd had a label slapped on me. But I was fascinated by what it must be like to go to the same school, all the way through, and never get the chance to break out."

She now wonders if such a common childhood experience, had she experienced it, might have left her better prepared for the media pigeon-holing she has encountered as an actress: notably for her debut role - as the free- spirited, sexually voracious Calypso in Peter Hall's television drama The Camomile Lawn - and for Pride and Prejudice.

"When The Camomile Lawn came out I was suddenly getting this image projected back to me of the `tempestuous Calypso'. People seemed to think that was me, which was so completely..." She still seems shocked by the memory. "I didn't know how to handle it. I felt branded. If anything was written about me, it was always `Jennifer Ehle who took all her clothes off'. That continued for a while and then Pride and Prejudice came along and I went from being tempestuous to being Elizabeth Bennett, after which people would say, `so do you want to get back into a bonnet and corset?'. As if such a fantastic character was defined by her bonnet."

The fascination with her more popular roles and their associations (the real-life affair with her "Mr Darcy", Colin Firth, was bliss for the tabloids) have resulted in an understandable trepidation about interviews which she is trying to overcome. But she also suggests another reason for coyness. "If I think of the actors I really admire - Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Maggie Smith, Ed Harris, Robin Wright - they are people you don't read about very often. I know very little about them. I find, as an audience member, that if someone's not labelled, boxed, categorised, it's easier to suspend disbelief. I remember reading, years and years ago, an interview in which Michelle Pfeiffer said she looked like a duck. She's a very beautiful woman, but when I see her now I do see the duck! Which I quite resent."

These observations are prompted not by actorly spleen, but by the label- busting ethos of Ehle's latest film, Bedrooms and Hallways. At first glance, the film is merely another on the current conveyor belt of British romantic comedies that include Sliding Doors, Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence and This Year's Love (in which Ehle also stars). What sets it apart are the happy shifts of its characters' sexual preferences, as the safe haven of a men's group is undermined by a gay newcomer.

"One of the things that I loved about the script is its openness, the fact that it doesn't get bogged down in gender stereotypes," says Ehle. "It doesn't slap a label on the first choice that people make." However, she doesn't rush to agree with co-star Simon Callow's opinion that the film reflects a society warming to its innate bisexuality. "That's not my experience. I don't know that many bisexual people. Very few."

She recalls that American director Rose Troche "was completely unhung- up about what the film was about, as was everyone involved. It was only after we'd finished shooting and I was telling somebody about it and they looked rather shocked, that I thought, `oh, right, what are people going to think of all this?'. I wondered whether people were quite ready to be this accepting of characters swapping their sexuality around, of straddling fences. I do think it's bold".

If the actress has "straddled" anything herself, it has been nationality: born in North Carolina to an English mother and American father, she attended a few English schools as well as American ones, changing accent each time she crossed the Atlantic, before the desire to act - "I've got some kind of chromosome glitch that makes me want to pretend to be somebody else; that's my drug"- prompted the decision to settle in London.

"I got into a four-year course at the North Carolina School of Arts, but only ever planned to be there for one year, to prepare for auditions at the London schools. Because I knew I wanted a classical training. I was only 17. I was a minx - so ambitious."

This ambition (which she suggests has "evaporated") led to her also leaving the Central School of Speech and Drama prematurely to star in The Camomile Lawn. Despite her earlier comments, Ehle rightly asserts that neither Calypso nor Elizabeth Bennett "affected the type of roles I've played otherwise. I've been labelled sometimes, but never typecast."

Indeed, the 29-year-old's eclectic CV includes: a spell with the RSC; on television, the enigmatic, contemporary heroine of Alan Bleasdale's Melissa, and a prisoner of war in the Second World War saga Paradise Road; and on film Oscar Wilde's cheated wife Constance in Wilde, and the dreadlocked, caustic single-mum in This Year's Love. If there are common denominators to be found, they are technical: an economy of style quite devoid of histrionics; brilliant diction; and, to steal a word often used to describe Ehle's friend Cate Blanchett, a "luminous" screen presence which owes itself to more than merely standing before the camera.

All of which makes her current unemployment hard to believe. "I've been out of work for seven months. I spend all day in Starbucks reading and going mad," she admits. This may sound melodramatic, but clearly it has been tough (she becomes almost tearful when I mention Blanchett's success, though insists I should continue "talk about her, talk away"). Why? "I think I am choosy, but it's not because I'm choosy. There just aren't that many good women's parts around. There are fewer heroines than heroes in the stories we tell."

But there are more in Britain than in America, she insists, "because of classical literature, because of Shakespeare". So she has no plans to return. "Hollywood has never been my Mecca. And I would rather live in London than LA. I wouldn't want to put myself under the physical scrutiny. I never want to worry about getting old, which I think I would if I were there. I don't want to be obsessed with chins!"

Ehle has one more movie in the can. The Taste of Sunshine, directed by the estimable Istvn Szab (Mephisto, Colonel Redl) and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, tells the story of a Hungarian-Jewish family over three generations and through the two world wars.

"I was in Budapest for two months and I think it was the happiest I've ever been," she reflects. "Because of the work. And because there's something liberating about being extracted from your life and being plonked in the middle of a strange city, breaking your tethers for a bit, being unreachable. Weeks in a hotel can be kind of Zen. You have your basics and that's all you have." And not a label in sight.

`Bedrooms & Hallways' is released tomorrow